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I'm running a D&D 5e game for two players. How can I make the contents of a treasure stash exciting without overpowering my players or just giving them lots of busywork?

Newish DM here - I'm still trying to get a handle on how to dish up treasure to my two players whenever they stumble on someone's cache/hoard/chest/secret wall safe. On the one hand, I want to give them a sense of accomplishment and reward for their efforts thus far, but on the other hand I don't want to make them too overpowered with great weapons/armor or just hand them lots of things they need to sell.

In the games I've seen other people run (none with under 5 players, which is probably why my experience is skewed) a treasure pile generally contains at least 3-4 at-level items. By that I mean it seems about 3-4 of the players in the group walks away with some kind of item that is of interest to their character. Generally someone's left out of the aquisition, I would guess to encourage the players to barter among themselves so everyone's happy with the distribution. There's also usually enough gold that either the money-keeper in the group is very satisfied, or every player gets a nice cut.

The balance I've described above seems to work really well. Most players get a nice boon after being silently manipulated into a good bit of in-character roleplay to figure out the distribution. Plus, everyone gets a bit of cash to replace what they spent on the mission.

The difficulty I'm finding is how to apply that same balance to a party of two. My players have very different styles (one is your typical smashy-shortrange, the other is a ranged-stealth - they don't tend to use the same items). Planting an item in the treasure is fine, but by the very act of being useful it will very clearly be of use to only one PC, which negates the need for any kind of discussion. I could just give them one item each every time, but then they'll quickly become overpowered if the new item is so obviously better than what they have.

Pure gold treasure seems lame to me (and lacks variety) but throwing in a bunch of lower-level items and/or gems to sell feels like busywork as they then need to take time later to barter the junk into cash.

Which brings me back to my bolded question up top. How do I make treasure stashes rewarding in such a small party?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You say that giving out N-1 items where N is the number of PCs has worked well. Why does it not in this case? \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Jan 4 '18 at 16:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Szega As I understand it, the point of handing out N-1 items is to encourage the PCs to "fight" over who gets what, encouraging roleplay and character motivation. In a party with just two players where useful items don't overlap, there's no rp/motivation happening. The pointy stick obviously goes to the fighter - the bow goes to the ranger. There's no fun to be had there. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Jan 4 '18 at 16:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not really sure what the problem is; Are you saying that it's not fun if everyone gets something? I've always found that the fun in treasure was in the getting and the using, not in the arguing over who gets any. \$\endgroup\$ – Airk Jan 4 '18 at 17:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Airk Maybe I'm doing treasure wrong then, but if they both get something great every time they find a stockpile their stats will very quickly get beyond the range of the monsters they're up against, no? \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Jan 4 '18 at 17:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ To clarify - what would you consider a "magical" item? Would it be sufficient to give out items with Minor Properties? Many of these are mostly flavourful - a item might weigh almost nothing, or be always warm to the touch, or play quiet music on command. This sort of thing makes the item feel special and magical, without being much use in combat, but a smart player can still think of cool uses for them... \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Jan 5 '18 at 11:38
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Give more 'Consumable' and 'Utility' magic items than 'Combat' magic items.

If you want to routinely pass out magic items, but don't want to give 'junk' or make your party OP...This is purely my advice, but I've used it in the past for small parties and it works well. If you tank your players up on permanent combat magic items, then yes...they are going to be OP in short order.

Rather than passing out +X Weapons, Armor, and other combat-focused magic items, consider...

Utility Items

Utility magic items like a Bag of Holding, Alchemy Jug, Cap of Water Breathing, Chime of Opening, Immovable Rod, Driftglobe, Eyes of Minute Seeing, a Figurine of Wondrous Power, Folding Boat, Nolzur's Marvelous Pigments, Sovereign Glue, and so on. These don't directly boost a characters combat prowess, but give them handy and cool magic items that are useful for other things. This lets you pass out cool magic items, without having to worry about your players stomping the monsters you put them up against.

Consumables

Pass out expendable magic items such as potions, oils, elemental gems, Dusts, Feather Tokens, and so on. This way, the party still gets a boost to their ability...but only a set number of times. This way they'll conserve and think about how they expend these things. You're giving them a momentary power boost to hold until later, after which they won't be able to use it again.

Alternative A: Give Plot Hooks

Instead of just passing out 'cash' and 'magic items,' drop little mysteries in their laps. Let them find scraps of a map, a signet ring bearing the king's seal, a map and signed deed to a fort, a piece of something that 'reads' as magical, but doesn't seem to do anything and looks incomplete, or other things like this. Instead of just passing out "loot" you are passing out hooks to further stories.

Alternative B: Buff their enemies

If you really dislike passing out 'pure cash' rewards (see here, for how this can still be really exciting). You could just make their enemies stronger. That's really not that difficult to do...just increase the number of things they have to kill, give the things they have to kill more HP or buff their damage output. Or just throw them against higher CR things.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've actually seen players use a few of those utility items in combat. One guy I played with held an enemy down with Sovereign Glue on one occasion and Immovable Rods on another. I've seen Immovable Rods used for acrobatic fighting. One guy had a particular affinity toward carrying salt around at all times due to its various uses, some of which were in combat. Lateral thinking goes a long way with items like these. \$\endgroup\$ – Beefster Jan 4 '18 at 19:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Beefster were they fighting giant snails? \$\endgroup\$ – Revolver_Ocelot Jan 4 '18 at 20:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Revolver_Ocelot I don't remember what he used salt for other than de-icing difficult terrain so that he could fight better. Maybe he used it as a substitute for sand in the eyes. \$\endgroup\$ – Beefster Jan 4 '18 at 20:17
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It boils down to three themes: items that it doesn't matter who gets it but means they lose out on a later find, items that no one wants so they have to decide who is saddled with it until traded for something useful later, or items that both could have a valid claim on so they need to decide if someone gets sole custody or they trade it off depending on circumstances.

For instance:

  • Non-class-specific magic items like potions and rings.
  • A magic item that is valuable but neither class would use.
  • Give parts to make a greater item. Has the advantage of giving the party members more powerful items in the future but they still get something now. So they would find a piece; but what will it be and what power will it have when complete? If you get this piece, I get the next magic item!
  • A magic item that has two bonuses; each would benefit only one class. Such as Glove of Lock Picking, and also gives advantage to grapple. Or a two-handed sword that improves Stealth.
  • Pointless/annoying items such as Squeaky Shoes of Invisibility.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Not to be picky but the hilts of the 3 blades you indicate are markedly different and readily identifiable as what blade they are designed to hold in almost all cases. The bullet point is valid but this example sort of detracts from it in my opinion. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Jan 4 '18 at 17:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth Agreed, but I was taking liberties to make a point. I'll edit it out to be clearer. \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Jan 4 '18 at 18:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ I just fell in love with the Squeaky Shoes of Invisibility. \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster Jan 4 '18 at 20:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Throw a sphere of silence to complete the invisibility \$\endgroup\$ – Vylix Jan 9 '18 at 9:13
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The easiest way to accomplish this is by giving your PCs half as many legit treasure stashes. The treasure stashes that your PCs find will be the same size and quality, littered with the same amount of cool items, as those they would find if there were four PCs, they just find them less often.

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